A Woman's Empire

John Haber
in New York City

Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun

City of the Soul: Rome and the Romantics

"What was remarkable about her face was the glow of her complexion. I have never seen one so brilliant."

Not every woman artist would wish to stake her claim to fame on Marie Antoinette, and not every feminist art history would care to remember. "Let them eat cake" would present a problem even for a still-life painter. And Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun had more than enough brilliance of her own. Yet she was sincere in her praise and eager to capture the glow—and so she did, while not entirely pleasing the men around her. Elisabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun's Self-portrait (Galleria degli Uffizi, 1790)For no other artist were class and gender so thoroughly intertwined. She had to fee to Italy to recover her career, but she was not alone in what another show calls "Rome and the Romantics."

Managing a career

Vigée Le Brun was not the first important woman artist. There are plenty of candidates for that, going back to at least the Middle Ages. Hildegard of Bingen might challenge many a modern feminist, too, with her talent as an artist inseparable from her mystical religious visions. In Vigée Le Brun's time, Angelica Kauffmann had been a founding member of England's Royal Academy along with Mary Moser, and Anne Vallayer-Coster anticipated her style in portraiture while specializing in still life. Yet she overcame obstacles that not even they would know. Her success only grew as she left her teachers and patrons behind.

Born in 1755, Vigée Le Brun can seem tame compared to the leading artists of Neoclassicism. She skips right past the revolutionary drama of Jacques-Louis David or Anne-Louis Girodet to the more florid and accommodating politics and painting of David's later years. She stops short of the precision and polish of J. A. D. Ingres. One might almost write her off as academic, but it was no mean feat for her to enter the French Academy. A woman could not have academic training, most especially drawing from the nude. Her retrospective at the Met calls her largely self-taught.

The daughter of a painter, like Artemisia Gentileschi in the Baroque, she learned first from her father, only to have him die when she was twelve. She found a mentor in Joseph Vernet, best known for his seascapes, but she created her own version of academic training by heading for the Louvre. She took pride in her mother all the while. In early portraits of family, her brother and stepfather look alert and intelligent, but also dutiful and bookish. Yet only her mother comes thoroughly alive. Le Brun was showing off and honing her skills in rendering the contrasting textures of fur, satin, and flesh, but what stands out are the motion in her mother's lips and the clarity in her eyes.

The touch-and-go relationship with power continued. She entered the proper guild, exhibited at the official Salon at age nineteen, and married the leading art dealer in Paris in 1776—but that made her ineligible for the Academy, which would have seen a conflict of interest. For all the decadence of the French court, the nexus of art and money could learn from it today. She got a free pass anyway thanks to the king and queen, who set aside the rules on her behalf. She had already cultivated her relationship with the queen, and it paid off. It also led to one of the largest, showiest, and most preposterous portraits of her career, but she needed set pieces like this to establish a reputation. Besides, she fell in love with the glow.

Marie Antoinette posed at Versailles in the largest and costliest dress available, but she also initiated a fashion for the trappings of a shepherdess. Again gender and class make uneasy partners. The curator, Katharine Baetjer, calls less confining clothing a declaration of independence, but the queen was asserting at once aristocratic privilege and a peasant's closeness to nature. Jean Jacques Rousseau would have understood, but it must only have added to the general hatred of the daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor, still with her Austrian accent. It did not always please the nobility either. When Vigée Le Brun painted her en chemise, in white muslin, she was obliged to try again in the same pose but fancier tastes.

The painter was also carefully managing a career. She lacked the training in history painting, but she completed an allegory of peace and abundance to be sure of her credentials. Its two women form a neat triangle skewed to the right. Motion remains important to Vigée Le Brun, even as she is becoming identified as a portrait painter. She combines it with images of femininity and fashion in the coquetry of upturned heads. She looks for an ancestor to her woman in a straw hat in Peter Paul Rubens.

Revolution in the air

Her few male portraits seem stiffer, although they do get to gesture as a proper woman could not. A count looks downright feminine in placing one foot before the other, but the controller general gets to hold out his credentials to the king. Still, she can rely on the queen, and she paints one last monumental portrait of her surrounded by her children and their bedding. It did not go over well. Some found the image, at once ostentatious and nurturing, a little overwhelming. Besides, time was running out for them all.

Revolution was in the air, and I do not mean in painting. Had enough of obstacles? Vigée Le Brun had already praised a portrait of Benjamin Franklin, and she had to cross the Alps in 1789 with her daughter in hand and her clientele scattered or dead. Some who reached Rome with her could no longer afford her prices. She left again, first for Naples, where Napoleon's sister became queen, then Vienna, where she sat out the Reign of Terror, and finally St. Petersburg—but she had to build a largely new audience. She turned for subjects to others in exile, like the former king of Poland, and liveliest of all to herself.

It paid off. On her return home in 1802, she could afford a country home on top of a base in Paris. Her daughter had grown—and grown apart. Her career was winding down, too, well before her death in 1842. She had little success on a trip to London and less still in the Salon of 1824. After all her trials, the triumph of Romanticism finally did her in.

She edged toward it nonetheless. She began inserting landscapes as backgrounds, including a view of the falls at Tivoli that approaches in its chasms what a Romantic would call the sublime. Later, in 1808, she paints a country festival in Switzerland. Colors brighten and figures move more freely than ever at closer to full length, like the Countess Golovina in the late 1790s raising her brocaded red dress to her lip. Brushwork matures as well with Vigée Le Brun's increasing command—evident in a sampling of pastels at the retrospective's center. Faces become firmer, while collars take on curled brushstrokes and larger curls of deep brown hair fall to a woman's breast.

One might even look for hints of changing ideals all along. She acknowledges surfaces as surfaces, in artistry inseparable from femininity and fashion. She also has a broad interest in how painting relates to the other arts. She paints a blushing Cecilia, the patron saint of music, and Madame de Staël clutching a harp. (The writer found it less than flattering.) She paints her sister-in-law, an actress and singer, intent on the viewer and her daughter as a bather, frightened by the male gaze.

For all that, Vigée Le Brun is at heart a face painter—twice over at that, with her daughter as a little girl in profile eying her full face in a mirror. Even that delight in fabric works to set off eyes and lips, just as with the artist's mother early on. One might expect no more, given her lack of training or ease with anatomy, and in fact a prince posing in the nude as glory looks downright mushy. I do not feel the loss of a larger version of the show's eighty works in Paris. Yet collectively the faces glance, turn, brighten, and shine. Vigée Le Brun remains loyal to her class in exile and return, but she still seeks the brilliance and the glow.

A natural amphitheater

Vigée Le Brun did not come to Rome on holiday. She had crossed the Alps to flee revolutionary France and to recover her practice as a portrait painter. Yet the city itself faced poverty and war amid the grandeur and the ruins, and she moved on. And artists were traveling from every side to take it all in. Frédéric Flachéron's Temple of Castor (photo by Graham S. Haber, Collection W. Bruce and Delaney H. Lundberg, 1851)With "City of the Soul: Rome and the Romantics," the Morgan Library sees Rome as a source of inspiration and a "natural amphitheater" amid its seven hills. Writers were there, too, including Nathaniel Hawthorne and Charles Dickens, and Lord Byron supplies the exhibition's title.

That title sets an obviously Romantic tone, but the show covers a century, beginning in 1770. J. A. D. Ingres, ever the classicist, heads straight for the French Academy and adds a portrait of its director. By the end Edgar Degas, still in his early twenties, is dating his notebook down to the minute. J. Pierpont Morgan himself appears in a photograph, as connoisseur and collector. Yet the museum focuses more on what they saw and its evolution. It sees the city, in the words of Giovanni Battista Piranesi and Thomas Jones, as a "Magick Land" of "Speaking Ruins"—and a tourist attraction.

As the show opens, Italy is just a stop along the Grand Tour for European wealth—and for Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. By its end, urban plans and panoramas have become tourist maps, and artists are turning out prints as souvenirs, with the Spanish Steps a hub. Even earlier, Piranesi compiles a catalog of work for sale. He was cataloguing contested ground. Street orphans, carnivals, and fireworks share the scene with monuments and vistas. A mother and child share the Colonnade of St. Peter's with idling soldiers. Other soldiers bombard Rome on the way to a united Italy.

Photography evolves, too, from one-off daguerreotypes to albumen prints from glass negatives. In between, Frédéric Flachéron's 1851 paper negative for a calotype has an unearthly glow, with the columns of an ancient temple its frame. If photos now serve as raw materials for painting, photographers then like Robert Turnbull Macpherson often copied a painting's composition and luxuriant surface. James Anderson in the 1860s swings from a broad panorama to a flooded piazza as the scene of play. Seemingly everything is theater, largely empty of actors, with the architecture its stage. Luigi Rossini's etchings nestle successive arches of Hadrian's Villa in perspective, while Anderson uses the Arch of Nero as a peephole onto distant hills.

Still, artists are neither natives nor tourists. They are following in the footsteps of Michelangelo and Michelangelo drawings in the Renaissance and Gian Lorenzo Bernini in the Baroque. They are transforming landscape from the calm of Claude Lorrain. The curators, John A. Pinto of Princeton University with the Morgan's John Bidwell, borrow from the Met, the Frick, and private collections on top of the Morgan's vast holdings to show it, with many unfamiliar names. John Robert Cozens in 1791 already bathes the city in soft blues and greens, while the very founder of Neoclassicism, Jacques-Louis David, appears at his fiercest and loosest. Before one knows it, J. M. W. Turner lends the interior of St. Peter's the atmosphere and scale of a Romantic sky.

A greater crispness enters with Joesphus Augustus Knip around 1810, Edward Lear and Thomas Hartley Cromek in the 1830s, and Gustav Wilhelm Palm in 1844. Camille Corot paints the Arch of Constantine and the Forum loosely, but his colors have the intensity of a new realism, on the way to Impressionism. Even earlier, though, Pierre-Henri De Valenciennes took a step toward painting out of doors. And even Piranesi adopts an open composition far from his Prisons. Several artists head for the Villa Borghese and nature's theater outside the city walls. Yet they know that its gardens are a human creation.

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"Vigée Le Brun: Woman Artist in Revolutionary France" ran at The Metropolitan Museum of Art through May 15, 2016, "City of the Soul: Rome and the Romantics" at The Morgan Library through September 11.


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